I find Lent to be a difficult season, both practically and spiritually. I know it’s supposed to be challenging—it’s supposed to push us closer to Christ and his sacrificial love for us. But my appetite for fasting is weak and my endurance for “going the extra mile” is a little bit pathetic, if I’m being honest.
Aside from the (admittedly immature) struggle of selecting a sacrifice and sticking to it for 40 days, I also find Lent to be a time of unique temptation. That temptation is toward scrupulosity, and it’s sometimes enough to distract and discourage me from the healing, strength-building journey Lent is meant to be.
What is Scrupulosity?
Scrupulosity is an obsession with sin, real or imagined. A scrupulous person suffers excessive anxiety over the thought of their own sinfulness: they may be convinced they’ve committed a sin when they have not, confuse venial sins for mortal sins, or be unconvinced of God’s forgiveness for their transgressions.
Naturally, this is an exhausting and depressing affliction. A healthy sense of Catholic guilt is one thing, but scrupulosity goes beyond a well-formed conscience. It convinces us we’re doomed, or unworthy of God’s love, or failing at following Christ.
It’s a minor thing, in some ways—I’m not hurting anyone else by being scrupulous. But it is major in a significant way: scrupulosity is, at its heart, a pride-fueled rejection of God’s grace.
How is that? How can it be that a condition of borderline (or over-the-line) self-loathing is actually a condition of pride?
The truth is that scrupulosity is the Enemy’s way of convincing us that our opinion of ourselves is more powerful than God’s opinion of us. To be excessively scrupulous is to tell oneself that God’s promises of love and salvation simply aren’t strong enough to apply to the likes of us.
But that’s impossible. We are children of God, made in His image. There’s no such thing as a soul that is “not good enough.” God would never make it so. God’s love for us is far and away more powerful than our own shame—whether we let ourselves feel His grace or not.
Lent Doesn’t Lead to Our Perfection
So, how does scrupulosity come into play during Lent? For me, it goes something like this:
Step 1: Set a lofty goal of sacrifice and growth for Lent with the intention of achieving spiritual awakening and/or profound holiness.
Step 2: Promptly fail at performing the necessary steps to achieve that goal. (“Oops, I just ate meat!” or “Ugh, I forgot to say my rosary.”)
Step 3: Mentally flagellate oneself for said failure by running over the memory of that bacon and how much I enjoyed it at least 77 times.
Step 4: Ask God for forgiveness and the grace to be better from now on.
Step 5: Repeat Step 3.
Step 6: Do slightly better at performing the necessary steps to achieve the goal.
Step 7: Repeat Steps 2-5, with the addition of an extra layer of guilt that sounds something like this: “For goodness sake, I was doing so well! I just had to go and screw it up again, didn’t I?”
Step 8: Repeat Step 7 with slowly declining frequency for the next 35 days.
Step 9: Make it to Easter. Praise God and congratulate oneself for sort of hitting the right targets. Feel “spiritually grown,” if not “spiritually awoken,” and vow that next year will be better. Be inordinately relieved that my chosen sacrifices are no longer mandated as Easter is celebrated.
Step 10: Forget to ever go back to those sacrifices once Easter feasting is over.
And then repeat it all next year.
If this sounds familiar, I feel your pain as you’re going through it all again this year. I really do.
One thing I realized last year during Lent was that, by focusing on my trip-ups more than my growth, I was making Lent about me and not about Christ. I can’t honor him, meditate on his sacrifice, or give him more of my love if I’m too busy nitpicking my every behavior. To obsessively police myself on the pretense of loving him makes little sense.
The prayers I utter at every failure are less sincere if I’m busy berating myself for needing to utter them. And even in the moments I successfully resist temptation, I shouldn’t be more relieved or proud than I am thankful for the opportunity to turn my eyes to God.
The fact is, God doesn’t want our perfection—He knows us well enough to know that we simply can’t give it in our fallen state. What He does want is our attention, our sacrifice, and our generosity (that is, generosity of spirit as well as material goods).
Lent is focused on three spiritual habits: fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving. All of these are expressions of sacrifice. All of them are meant to take our attention away from ourselves and put it onto our neighbors and our God.
Lenten fasting isn’t simply about saying “no” to food. It’s about saying “yes” when God asks, “Is your relationship with Me more important than your physical comfort?”
Lenten abstinence isn’t about saying “no” to luxury. It’s about saying “yes” when God asks, “Is your ability to resist temptation in My name stronger than your desire for worldly indulgence?”
Lenten almsgiving—all almsgiving, really—isn’t about saying “no” to hoarding our wealth or possessions. It’s about saying “yes” when God asks, “Is your love for My family more significant than your love for material goods?”
Love God, Love the Church, Love Yourself
The Gospel is so full of evidence that Christ wants us to love ourselves as deeply as he loves us. We are told to “love others as you love yourself.” We are reminded of the many ways in which we can—and should—make a gift of ourselves to others. We are referred to as brothers and sisters, and told stories of forgiveness and salvation.
All of this implies that we are deeply, inherently good. That’s what God made us to be. And this life is about working to remain true to that goodness, so that we may live it out more fully in the next life.
So be obedient to God’s commandments, be true to your promises, and be good to yourself.
If you’ve stumbled during this Lenten season, confess, pray, and move forward. You can draw closer to Christ, but not on your own—and not if you’re constantly wounding yourself in your attempts to grow. Accept your imperfection and offer it up. God wants all of you, and He will help you do all the things you were meant to do.
“Cast yourself into the arms of God and be very sure that if He wants anything for you, He will fit you for the work and give you strength.” – St Philip Neri